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Rev. Letty Russell, at 77; feminist theologian at Yale


When Harvard University's Divinity School was slow to admit women in the 1950s, Letty Russell questioned why an exception was made for a dean's wife who was part of the program.

"They came back and said, 'Oh, you can come," ' said the Rev. Kristen Leslie, a colleague of Russell's at Yale Divinity School, where Rev. Russell taught for 27 years.

The moment was just one of many in Rev. Russell's lifelong "willingness to speak truth to power," said Leslie, an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling.

The Rev. Russell, a pioneering feminist theologian, died July 12 of cancer at her home in Guilford, Conn. She was 77.

A founder of the Women's Theological Center in Boston, she was one of the first women to receive a master of divinity degree from Harvard and one of the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church.

From a young age, Rev. Russell had a deep sense of her privilege growing up in a white, middle-class family, according to family members.

"We led a comfortable life, and she was never quite comfortable with that comfortable life," said her younger sister, Elizabeth Collins of Salem, Ore. "She wanted always to help other people and do things for other people."

Rev. Russell believed deeply in fostering change by promoting partnerships among people of all races and classes. One of her recent projects involved empowering church women in Africa to fight HIV and AIDS.

"The poor do not ask us to feel guilty, for they can't eat guilt. What they ask is that we act to address the causes of injustice so they can obtain food," she wrote in an essay included in the book, "Inheriting Our Mothers' Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective."

Rev. Russell grew up in Westfield, N.J., the second of three daughters.

Her mother, Miriam (Towl), was a bacteriologist who worked on a floating hospital in New York harbor during World War I, and then left her profession to raise her children. Her father, Ricketson B., was a tradeshow salesman.

Rev. Russell received her undergraduate degree in biblical history and philosophy in 1951 from her mother's alma mater, Wellesley College.

She inherited her "ornery spirit," she once wrote, from her Irish great-grandmother on her father's side, a pastor's wife named Mary Looney, who used her money after her husband died to open a home for unwed mothers and troubled girls in Boston in the 1800s.

Rev. Russell graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1958 after studying theology and ethics. She later earned another master's degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York in Christian education and theology in 1967.

"Her scholarly work and her contributions to the church are huge," said Nancy Richardson, a retired associate dean of Harvard Divinity School. "She is going to be remembered for her ability to communicate with people across the board and connect with people across cultures."

Following a brief marriage to a fellow Harvard student and pastor in 1951, she was assigned to a parish in East Harlem in New York City. She worked there from 1952 to 1968, including 10 years as pastor of Presbyterian Church of the Ascension.

She met her husband Hans Hoekendijk, the late Dutch ecumenist professor, through the World Council of Churches. The couple traveled extensively before he died in 1975.

With a low-key style and a sense of humor that put people at ease, the Rev. Russell carved a reputation as a leader who brought people together and expected them to produce great things.

"She has a great sense of humor and is able to use that humor to draw people into a conversation in a way that enables people not to be intimidated," said Richardson. "If you want something done, Letty is the person you go to."

Francine Cardman, associate professor of historical theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, said the Rev. Russell spoke to both the disaffected and the mainstream.

"Her critiques don't sound as radical as some but she actually managed to move people's practice much more effectively," Cardman said. "She doesn't just do a critique for, let's say, racism and white privilege, she actually helps people change."

Rev. Russell, who wrote and edited more than 17 books, was a leader in the ecumenical movement and also worked for the World Council of Churches and the World YWCA. She joined the Yale faculty in 1974 and became a full professor in 1985. She retired in 2001 but continued to teach courses this year.

"She always sought unity grounded in understanding achieved through dialogue -- sometimes uncomfortable but always generative of new insight and bright promise for a more faithful church," said the Rev. Eileen W. Lindner, general secretary of the National Council of Churches for Research and Planning, in a statement.

In 2005, Rev. Russell was joined with her partner, Shannon Clarkson, in a civil commitment ceremony at their home near a river in Connecticut where Rev. Russell enjoyed windsurfing and kayaking.

Throughout her life, one of her favorite activities was sailing. Her sister fondly recalled times the Rev. Russell would captain their sailboat through Long Island Sound while the sisters would sing songs from their childhood such as "The Walloping Window Blind," a tale of children pretending to sail .

"It was a great joy to her," her sister said.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. in First Congregational Church in Guilford followed by an evening celebration at Yale Divinity School in New Haven. Another memorial service is planned for fall. Burial will be private.